Networking is one of the keys to developing a steady stream of work as a consultant. And, one of the keys to networking success is to always be networking. That might require you to change the way you think about networking. It’s not just an activity that’s reserved for business events, coffee dates, or some other formalized business development activity. In fact, when you start thinking of networking as relationship building rather than selling, you will realize that every day on the job is an opportunity to build relationships, and therefore to build your network. On a recent consultant forum call, our consultants shared their tips for successfully networking on the job:
1. View everyone you meet as a potential client.
You probably have one or two points of contact that you’re working closely with; a handful of other people you interact with occasionally, and then others you get introduced to along the way. Whether they’re employees, other consultants, agency people, analysts, or partners, they can all be great contacts for you. You’ll be presented within a circle of trust, and they’re going to have an experience of your work, and your personal style. Make sure to introduce yourself properly, so people know who you are and what you can do. Take down the names of the people you meet, and take notes so you can follow up with those you’d like to form a deeper connection with.
2. Learn about people on a personal level.
When you first meet with someone, take some time to learn about their history with the company, and about their career path. Learn a little bit about who they are outside of work as well. Strike up conversations in the hallways or lunch room. Make lunch or coffee dates, over Zoom if necessary. Take the first few minutes of a business meeting to engage in what people call “small talk.” Small talk isn’t really small; a better way to think of it is “starter talk,” because you’re learning and looking for connections and common interests you can build a relationship around. Be sure to share a little bit about yourself as well. Then when you do see people, you have rapport on both a personal and professional level.
3. Join the welcome wagon.
When somebody new starts, introduce yourself. We all know what it’s like to be the new kid on the block, and how good it feels when you’re in a group where you don’t know anyone and someone reaches out to make a connection. When someone is starting a new job, they’re probably overwhelmed and it can be really nice for them to talk to someone who’s outside the company and can give them a different perspective on navigating it, as well as become a friendly face in the crowd.
4. Connect on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn has become the go-to social network for business people. Follow that initial introduction and conversation with an invitation to connect. View their profile to see what connections you may have in common. Personalize it with a reference to those connections, and to your prior conversation.
5. Look for opportunities to help.
As you go about getting to know people, make it your business to also learn about what else is going on in the company. Don’t be shy about letting them know how you can help (if you can), and that you’re interested in doing so. Getting more projects with the same client allows you to deepen those relationships. Have a blurb or short deck on hand that you can customize and send out to quickly capitalize on opportunities that may arise.
6. Be open to short gigs and “odd jobs.”
When you’re of the mindset to always be networking, short gigs and odd jobs (jobs outside your normal area of expertise) start to look less like not getting what you wanted — a meaty project or longer contract — and more like extended business development opportunities. It’s a chance to meet a whole new group of people, and show them what you can do. Opportunities like family leave coverage can help you get a foot in the door. Do a good job and you’ll most likely win the trust of the person you’re covering for, and their co-workers. That can lead to new opportunities that may be more up your alley.
7. Lean into your status as a consultant.
Part of the value consultants bring is that they are above the fray of office politics and the daily crush of meetings. They also have a broader perspective that comes with seeing the inner workings of a wider variety of companies. Establish yourself as a trusted confidant by sharing that broader perspective. Give positive feedback, pointing out the things you see them doing well as compared to other clients — people rarely get positive feedback. Share strategies and tactics you’ve seen work well elsewhere that could be adapted to their needs. Point out the pros and cons of options they may be considering. Let them know you are in their corner, and there to help them succeed in their role. Always be a source of ideas to improve and advance the work at hand. Soon you will find yourself as a trusted confidant and sounding board for a wide range of problems, some of which you may be able to help them solve.
8. Keep in touch.
People move around a lot — within the company, and to other companies. When you learn that someone is moving on, reach out to congratulate them and learn a bit about their new role. Speak to what you enjoyed about working with them. Say you’d like to keep in touch. And then do it. Drop an occasional note on LinkedIn, Slack, or email. Send them an article you think they might like, or an invitation to an event you think they might enjoy: “Saw this and thought of you.” Keep developing the relationship. Don’t be that person that only reaches out when they’re looking for work.
9. Close the loop.
When a project ends, ask for a LinkedIn recommendation. And give them one too.
Networking is a continual process because you never know where your next opportunity might come from. It might not be the person in front of you, but a person who knows a person who knows that person. When an opportunity turns up, you want to be poised to jump on it, but most of the time you’re just making friends and building relationships and showing people what you can do. Do that proactively, without any expectations. Once you land in a few different places, build relationships and do good work, you’ll start to see your efforts pay off. Eventually, you’ll be able to look back on your path and see how it all connects together, like links in a chain — one that you created through networking.
EM Consultants Nancy Keith Kelly, Alison Sokoloff, Colleen Atherton and Tina Baylocq, and EM Founder and President Ken Chen contributed to this article.